How the NCTJ proved that asking the wrong question is one of the most basic fact-finding failings

“Asking the right question, that’s the key to journalism.” It’s one of the many pieces of advice I received from the experienced and wise old hands who mentored me during my first job as a trainee reporter on the Citizen series in Lancashire in the late 1990s.

It came to mind again today when I read the NCTJ’s report “Review of the NCE” which concluded that evolution, not revolution, was what was required. Which must be a relief to everyone at the NCTJ.

The question which appears to have stoked most debate was the one which asked editors to rank, on a scale of one to six, how important they found various reporting elements.

The options included: Writing news stories, finding news stories, interviewing, legal issues, selective note-taking, ethical/regulatory issues, interaction with readers/viewers/listeners, time management, web skills and social media.

Writing news stories, finding news stories and interviewing scored the most – looking at the chart around 5.35 to 5.45 out of six overall. Social media and web skills scored, looking at the chart, around 4.9.

In terms of a difference, it isn’t very much. Why is there a difference at all? Well, in a survey of 100 people it doesn’t take much to shift the numbers. But more important to me is why social media and web skills are in their own categories at all.

Using social media shouldn’t be a skill in its own right, it should just be part of what a reporter does to find news stories.

It’s like Trip Adviser asking someone to rate the importance of a fork and spoon when ordering spaghetti at an Italian restaurant. Sure, the most important thing is the meal, but life’s a heck of a lot harder if you decide that the spoon and fork aren’t as important to the eating experience.

Ironically, interaction with readers scored more highly than using social media, but lower than finding news stories. Surely the three go hand-in-hand. Each can be done by the journalist on its own, but the successful, employable journalist will be one who can do all three without thinking about it.

And maybe that’s the problem here. This survey thought about social media, and web skills, as separate elements of a reporter’s job. Why?

The NCTJ has form for this. My logbook, which I was looking at the other weekend when trying to find an old cutting for a journalist (the first time I’ve looked at it in a decade) had a section called ‘new media.’ How did I have to prove I was a ‘new media’ journalist at the turn of the century? By submitting five examples of emails I’d sent and five examples of websites I’d carried out research on. Even in the year 2000, that felt a bit quaint.

And that’s the problem the NCTJ faces. By even asking the question about the relevance of web skills and social media as seperate elements to the job to legal issues, ethical issues and finding stories, it ends up looking quaint.

If the key to journalism lies in asking the right question, then maybe it’s time for the NCTJ to do a resit on this one.  

Other people, like Alison Gow, address some of the absurd elements of the NCE exam itself. If there isn’t an element of social media in each aspect, or an expectation that journalists will think web, then it simply isn’t fit for purpose.

Footnote: There was a lot of stamping of feet on Twitter today about the NCTJ report, with the cliched ‘dinosaurs in newsrooms’ references being trotted out. There’s a lesson for journalists in this: Read the stories being linked too rather than the 140-character comments people attach to them. There’s too much opinion being passed on issues without reading the source. That, of course, would be a basic failure for a journalist.

5 comments

  1. Unfortunately, going by the response from various hacks on their blogs today, folk have done exactly the opposite – going purely by the UKPG article and the reactions on Twitter rather than any analysis of the source itself.

    1. Really? Martin Belam made more direct reference to the numbers in the source report that the Press Gazette article did.

      Sure, there was plenty of knee-jerking from people both pro- and anti-digital on Twitter, but that’s Tweetery for you. And there was plenty of stuff in the comments of the PG piece that suggested that they haven’t even read the whole of the piece they were commenting on. But every blog post I’ve seen was based on thinking through the implications of the research from various angles.

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